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Thursday, July 18, 2024
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PeopleHolly Miller

Holly Miller

‘When I was nine years old my family came to live in Beaminster, so Dorset has been home for most of my life. After attending Beaminster School I went to Bournemouth for two years to do an Art Foundation course. Living in Bournemouth, at aged sixteen, after growing up in a small town was quite a challenge, but I was drawn in by the wide scope of art forms on the course which included photography, textiles, and graphic design.
After completing the foundation course, I went study at Hereford College to do an HND in Design Crafts. The course was great, teaching you a wide variety of crafts and material fabrication knowledge alongside business studies so you could design and create pieces to sell in galleries. I loved beachcombing, especially on Portland with my dad, so I made driftwood sculptures that included animal skulls, shells and other hidden gems we found on the beach. I think I’ve always been a maker, even as a child.
Moving back to Dorset after my studies I worked for a Theming company on Portland where I learnt, in a hands-on way, fibre glassing, sculpting, scenic painting, and basic carpentry which has been immensely useful.
I worked for 10 years as a picture framer for Abbotsbury Pictures, learning new techniques, framing work for local artists, and it gave me the opportunity to go to Venice to buy beads to make jewellery to sell in the gallery at the picture framers. All these experiences, and perhaps never saying no to anything, have combined to give me the skills I need for what I do now.
Moving to Bridport as an adult and raising my family here, I was intrigued to discover ‘Puppet Club’ at The Lyric Theatre and started to come along with my children. They loved it, I loved it and I soon became more involved with making puppets. Nikki McCretton, Lyric owner, began to take me under her wing, and using my experience over the years as a visual artist and my new skillset, I now run Puppet Club!
Puppets can become anything you want, at any time as you’re making them. They can morph. Recently participants created a Japanese anime figure, a pterodactyl, a chameleon, a fluffy dog, and a dolphin. During the last session, half an hour before the end of the workshop, the dolphin began to look very like an old lady, so it became The Old-Lady Dolphin. I have noticed how children, post lockdown, are having real trouble with basic manual skills, like cutting with scissors. Perhaps this is due to so much of their time being spent tapping or swiping a screen. Some kids get stuck creatively, as they focus on making characters that they have seen on TV or in a movie. With puppet making, it’s more rewarding to create something from your imagination. The puppet can look like anything!
As a designer, I can find myself creating for both outdoor and indoor theatre productions all over the UK. One of the lovely parts of my job is working in theatres, in rehearsals and on tour. Theatres are beautiful buildings to work in and to find out how they function backstage is a thrill. My part in the production is a privilege, but it’s also high pressure, making sure the set and puppets are robust enough to cope with the rigours of touring. I also get to work with some fabulous people.
Although I’m a freelance artist, working with lots of companies and other artists, I work regularly with Bridport-based theatre company, Stuff and Nonsense. When I first started working with the company, I made the puppets and some of the props, but now I’ve worked my way up. During lockdown we started to create a large-scale, adaptation of Pinocchio, commissioned by Theatre Royal, Plymouth. This was my first show as Theatre Designer; a role which includes visioning the whole stage design from concept to final finish, the costumes design and colour palette, as well as the puppets and props, spending 18 months creating this alongside the team to the premiere. I’m one of a team which, over the 10 years I’ve been with them, has grown as a creative unit. Stuff and Nonsense’s performances are devised in the rehearsal room and a script and scenes grow as we explore the themes of the show.
I also design for other artists and companies, like Clare Benson at Pavilion Dance South West, with her climate-related show Plastic Paradiso, making puppets, props and set from recycled materials.
It can be a really satisfying challenge to be asked to design and make something from a very minimal brief. I design and draw an idea, make protypes which we experiment with, then, once we know it’s working, constructing everything alongside fabricators to turn it from a model into the full-sized set and puppets, which is the joyful part for me. An actor or puppeteer then brings everything to life on stage, and although I may have been close to a puppet for ages while making it, that transformation is always a huge thrill; something I have made with my own hands now has a life of its own.
This is the essence of theatre; when you realise all you’ve been through to get to this point. The work that people have put in, the people you’ve met in that process, the ideas that have come and gone, seeing the show grow from those ideas, the rehearsing, and finally seeing the performance; then at last, hearing the reactions, laughter, applause and comments from the audience. That’s the “worth it” bit.
I think the puppets that I make have a unique style, despite being of different scale or construction. For example, some are carved from foam with wooden mouth-plates, some are squishy puppets, some are made of fleece or found objects. It all depends on the job they must do. Needing to know what gaps the puppet might have to go through on its journey through the show, if it’s for the left or right hand and is it going to be hand or mechanically operated. This is why I’m in the rehearsal room from the first day, to work all these things out. However, once I was asked at short notice to make an enormous, articulated elephant trunk for the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmonds, with only dimensions to work from. I then sent it off in a big box. Not seeing it how it worked in rehearsal or performance was strange indeed!
Touring companies perform on stages which vary in size massively, which also requires adaptability from the puppets and set designs. I have developed a process where I often make a functioning protype from cardboard, to make sure all the proportions work for these different sized theatres. So, if something isn’t quite working, I am able to make changes really quickly without wasting precious materials. All quite a challenge, but lots of fun.
So much of it is about understanding whether a material—like leather, plastic, wood, fabric, etc, will behave in the way you need it to. An understanding of anatomy helps to make things realistic in their function, especially in the bigger pieces I’ve made, like the Spirit of Bridport lady, a giant, twelve-foot street puppet carried by several people, made from willow and bamboo, or the Char dragon that paraded through Charmouth down to the river Char to highlight its pollution.
Working in the arts means you have to have many strings to your bow, so I also work as an Assistant Rehearsal Director for Stuff and Nonsense, which means I’ll travel to the venues to see the shows to make any changes to the performance and give the actors direction, according to audience reaction. I also design and lead creative workshops for a variety of schools and community groups for people of different abilities, which they seem to really enjoy.
Many of the shows I’m involved with are for people aged 3 to 103! They are a magical experience for whole families. Audiences right now are much reduced because of the high cost of living and the disruption from the pandemic. I’m optimistic about the future for touring theatre companies, but funders often don’t understand about the challenges we face. The pandemic caused skilled theatre technicians to find work elsewhere, so that staging a show in a limited time is even more of a challenge. The arts, sadly, is a low-paid sector, and this needs to change, but like so many other people in low-income careers, we still find passion in what we do.’

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